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African countries should rethink how they use e-government platforms

Different approaches to e-governance could bear fruit for African countries. jurgenfr/Shutterstock

More and more governments around the world are turning to electronic methods to deliver services and communicate with citizens via the internet.

These e-government systems, as they are known, allow people to do a number of things. They can pay for their utilities, or settle their fines. They can register new businesses or vehicles. They are also able to get information from government agencies through emails, SMS messages, and mobile apps.

Developed nations were the trendsetters in e-government. Now developing countries are catching up. The United Nations named India among the top 100 of 193 UN Member States that were assessed in its 2018 e-Government Development Index.

In the same report, four African countries – Ghana, Mauritius, South Africa and Tunisia – were rated as having a high e-government development index. This means they’ve made many types of public services available online. More than 30 other countries on the continent, among them Cameroon, Nigeria, Lesotho, Togo and Rwanda, were rated as having made visible progress in e-government.

In theory, this is a good thing. It allows citizens to directly access public services in a faster way without undue bureaucracy. It can also be used to minimise corrupt practices. Governments can also obtain prompt feedback on the quality of public services.

The reality, though, is that African countries’ adoption of e-government platforms hasn’t served the majority of their citizens. Services like e-taxation, e-payment and e-billing are useful for the middle class and richer people. But e-government initiatives that would support and cater to poorer people are sorely lacking.

For example, e-government initiatives designed to enable skills development for poor citizens and the unemployed, or to promote micro enterprises, are not easy to find in most African countries.

E-government initiatives in Africa need to be redesigned and re-contextualised so they can address the needs of most citizens, rather than relatively few.

My colleague Professor Charles Ayo and I conducted research about e-government using Nigeria as a case study. We outlined the ways that governments on the continent can redefine and offer more effective, useful e-government.

We identified several ways in which e-government could be used to better suit African countries’ contexts. These included using e-government platforms for electoral processes, to coordinate health care, to support small businesses, and for secure and transparent procurement procedures.

New ways of thinking

Our analysis found that there’s a growing awareness of e-government’s benefits in Nigeria. It is increasingly being used. But many challenges still exist.

Some of these are related to poor information and communication technology infrastructure. Poor finance, poor political leadership, as well as poor organisation and communication, also play a role. These problems are not peculiar to Nigeria. They’ve hampered the successful implementation of e-government in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Drawing from our research, we argue that there are several ways in which African e-government platforms can become more useful and relevant for the majority of citizens.

Crucially, such platforms should be accessible on mobile phones; this technology is becoming increasingly affordable for most people on the continent. Internet penetration on the continent is also improving.

The next question is what services these platforms should offer. We have the following suggestions.

First, there’s e-democracy. This involves the use of information and communication technology to facilitate citizens’ active participation in democratic processes: for instance, voter registration, actual voting and election monitoring. Governance could be made more inclusive and transparent even beyond election time by providing information and promoting continual engagements with elected representatives.

E-government platforms can also create empowering spaces for small and informal businesses. African governments could begin to provide open cloud platforms that can support these enterprises with computing infrastructure, software services, and visibility to a larger consumer market. The beneficiaries could be allowed to access these services for free or for a token fee.

Currently, such initiatives are not common in most African countries. There are social media and advertising platforms, but these are not the same as e-government services designed to help citizens.

Governments’ electronic payment and procurement systems could also be implemented across all sectors of government. This would promote efficiency and reduce corruption to the barest minimum.

E-government solutions could embrace additional aspects: informal learning, skills development, and health campaigns. These would all be valuable approaches to ensure the continent’s e-government platforms do more for the majority.

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